Mo' Better News?

Wikipedia, the successful open source encyclopedia, is launching a daily news website called Wikinews. Its goal is to "create a diverse environment where citizen journalists can independently report the news on a wide variety of current events." Will it succeed? I think it's got some problems, but also potential.

I've been a fan of Wikipedia ever since I first saw it demonstrated at a conference in Amsterdam. In fact, it served as the inspiration and model for our own Disinfopedia. The word "wiki" comes from a Hawaiian term for "quick" or "super-fast." Wikis are websites that are designed to be easy for website users to edit online. Anyone can create an article, and anyone can edit anything that anyone else has created. Of course there is a certain amount of nonsense that gets added under this system, but with a large wiki like the Wikipedia, vandalism and mistakes are usually detected and repaired quickly. The system enables large numbers of people to collaborate with a minimum of duplicated effort. Since its founding in 2001, Wikipedia has grown into an encyclopedia with more than a million articles in dozens of languages - more than 400,000 articles in the English-language version alone. Many of the articles rival or exceed the detail and quality of comparable articles in conventional encyclopedias like World Book or the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Wikinews, of course, is just getting started. When I visited on December 11, it only had 164 articles, most of which were rewritten versions of stories already available online from sources like the Associated Press or Google News.

The number of articles and contributors will undoubtedly grow over time. However, there are some other, more serious design problems that I see with Wikinews at present:

First: The software isn't really designed to do news well. One of the obvious differences between a newspaper and an encyclopedia is that an encyclopedia is a relatively timeless resource, whereas a newspaper is all about events that have just happened. (That's why they call it "news.") An encyclopedia is expected to contain articles about topics such as Aristotle or the Persian Empire. A newspaper in, say, Minneapolis is expected to report on topics such as current deliberations of its city council, crimes, fires, sports and current stock prices. Weblogs, which are organized chronologically, currently do a better job of capturing the this-just-happened aspect of news than Wikinews does.

Second: Wikinews is trying to emulate Wikipedia's policies, and that isn't how news works. "Neutral point of view," or NPOV, is the Wikipedia equivalent of what journalists refer to as "objectivity," but in practice the two terms have different meanings. Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales has described NPOV as follows:

The neutral point of view attempts to present ideas and facts in such a fashion that both supporters and opponents can agree. Of course, 100% agreement is not possible; there are ideologues in the world who will not concede to any presentation other than a forceful statement of their own point of view. We can only seek a type of writing that is agreeable to essentially rational people who may differ on particular points. ...

Perhaps the easiest way to make your writing more encyclopedic, is to write about what people believe, rather than what is so. If this strikes you as somehow subjectivist or collectivist or imperialist, then ask me about it, because I think that you are just mistaken. What people believe is a matter of objective fact, and we can present that quite easily from the neutral point of view.

This approach makes sense for Wikipedia and is part of the reason that it has been able to assemble a diverse community of contributors who manage, for the most part, to treat one another with respect. However, it is a very different standard than objectivity as defined by scientists, who are engaged in trying to describe what is, rather than merely what people believe. And it is also fundamentally different from objectivity as the term is understood by journalists.

Wikipedia also has a related policy of "no original research," which is intended to prevent the site from becoming a massive repository of crank views. As Wales explains, "The basic concept is as follows: it can be quite difficult for us to make any valid judgment as to whether a particular thing is true or not. It isn't appropriate for us to try to determine whether someone's novel theory of physics is valid; we aren't really equipped to do that. But what we can do is check whether or not it actually has been published in reputable journals or by reputable publishers. So it's quite convenient to avoid judging the credibility of things by simply sticking to things that have been judged credible by people much better equipped to decide."

Here, too, there are good reasons for Wikipedia's policy, but try to imagine how it would work for a journalist. Every time a reporter interviews a source, pores through official records, or engages in anything that remotely resembles investigative journalism, he or she is engaged in original research. (That's also why they call it "news.")

Most of the best investigative journalism that has actually been published would violate Wikipedia's policies. For example, NPOV would exclude Seymour Hersh as well as the great early 20th-century muckrakers such as Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair. Consider the line in the movie version of "All the President's Men" where Jason Robards, in the role of Ben Bradlee, tells Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, "Goddammit, when is somebody going to go on the record in this story? You guys are about to write a story that says the former Attorney General, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in this country, is a crook! Just be sure you're right." Saying that the attorney general is a crook is clearly a point of view, and the standard that Bradlee demands is not, "be sure that you respectfully represent all opinions." Instead, he says, "be sure you're right."

As groups like Wikinews work to encourage the emergence of online citizen journalism, it helps to understand the historical antecedents of what they are trying to create. Contrary to the official mythology taught in journalism schools, "objectivity" in the sense of "nonpartisanship" has not been the norm for journalism, either in the U.S. or anywhere else. The first newspaper published in the American colonies, "Publick Occurrences," was regarded as seditious literature. So were the "New England Courant," published later by James Franklin (Ben's brother); "The New York Weekly," published by John Peter Zenger; the "Massachusetts Spy," published by Isaiah Thomas (which covered the first armed clash between the Patriots and British and coined the phrase, "the shot heard 'round the world"); and the "Independent Advertiser" published by American revolutionary and radical propagandist Samuel Adams. After the American revolution, many U.S. newspapers aligned themselves with Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. (The Federalist Papers were first published in newspapers.) Other important editors and newspapers supported the opposition to the Federalists which formed around Thomas Jefferson. Subsequent newspapers with names like "The Liberator" and "Freedom's Journal" were important advocates for the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, education, temperance and other social reforms. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer built their publishing empires by crusading for causes including trust-busting, popular election of senators and the graduated income tax. It is precisely through serving as vehicles for the expression of non-neutral points of view that these journalistic institutions served their communities and helped bring about many of the social advances that we enjoy today.

As presently contemplated, Wikinews seems designed to produce summaries of news generated elsewhere but is unlikely to generate original, hard-hitting reporting. Even so, it is a worthwhile experiment. Wikipedia has a large and vibrant community of contributors, and they have shown the ability to innovate in the past, adapting and revising their policies when necessary. They have as good a chance as anyone to develop into a source of credible, informative citizen journalism, and I wish them luck.


It seems to me that Wikinews could be an I.F. Stone writ large. This passage from Victor Navasky's <a href="">homage to Stone</a> in the Nation could with a little modification could be Wikinews' mission statement: <blockquote>[A]lthough he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world. His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain. It was his habitat of necessity, because use of government sources to document his findings was also a stratagem. Who would have believed this cantankerous-if-whimsical Marxist without all the documentation?</blockquote> That last statement is especially intriguing - he was radical, opinionated, maybe even a little loony, but in the end he was right. And a hell of a lot of fun to read. <br><br> This part also seemed apt: <blockquote>He once told David Halberstam that the Washington Post was an exciting paper to read "because you never know on what page you would find a page-one story." One of his favorite scoops...had to do with our capacity to monitor underground nuclear tests. It happened in the fall of 1957, when he spotted a "shirt tail" in the New York Times. A shirt tail, Izzy explained to the foreign journalists, is usually some wire-service information run as a little paragraph hanging down ("like a shirt tail") at the end of the main story.</blockquote> Seems to me that's a lot like what the bloggers are doing every day. <br><br> Finally, I think the I.F. Stone model would be successful because of the satisfaction contributors would derive, motivating them to do more. As Izzy once said, "I have so much fun I ought to be arrested."

I'd also love to see a news site that consciously <i>avoided</i> a "neutral point of view." <br><br> In reading blogs for the past couple of years, I've found that, contrary to the moral of the "blind men and the elephant," a collection of opinions can provide better understanding about an issue or event than any "objective" news report. (I've also developed a gag-reflex to the studied blandness of newswriting and the absurd, forced balance of he-said, she said reporting). I think a blog reader (at least those who bother to read more than Rush Limbaugh-type dittohead sites) would be demonstrably better informed about, say, Iraq than someone who relied exclusively on <i>The New York Times</i> and the CBS Evening News, and not just because of shoddy reporting and overreliance on disinformation from government sources. <br><br> Imagine a site that ran a report about the battle of Fallujah featuring short, unmediated essays by: <br><br> - A military expert<br> - A Middle East expert<br> - A soldier<br> - A resident of Fallujah<br> - An anti-war activist<br> - A Bush supporter<br> <br> I know it's possible, because I've come across all of those voices online. The report could also lay out basic factual information and pull together links to historical info, timelines, etc. It'd make the nightly news look like "Barney & Friends" in comparison.